TENACITY

Chris Hewitt

~ Then a miracle happened. My friend Lance, a landscape gardener, called from San Francisco and invited me for Christmas week to stay with him and some friends in a cabin in the Sierra foothills.

Living with a severe disability is tough. Up
until my first stroke five years ago, I also lived with the fear of further disabling illnesses or disabilities, blindness perhaps, or deafness.

With the stroke some of those fears were realized: severe weakness and numbness on the left side of my body, loss of peripheral vision on the left side and short-term memory loss. Following the stroke, I experienced "a severe depressive episode with suicidal ideations" (the psychotherapist's description) which lasted eight months. Never before had I experienced such a feeling of despair. I became insomniac, "in love with my bed."

This kind of depression is common after a stroke, caused partly by biochemical changes brought on by the stroke's trauma to the brain. I felt I would never climb out of this "black hole." I don't remember feeling as crazy as this before; it's possible that I had been this depressed in my drinking days, but then at least I had my buddy and best friend, alcohol, to numb the pain. I felt as if my life were over. But this time, thanks to my therapy sessions and my support groups, I did not return to drink.

Then a miracle happened. My friend Lance, a landscape gardener, called from San Francisco and invited me for Christmas week to stay with him and some friends in a cabin in the Sierra foothills. One of his friends and I took a shine to each other. While Lance was serving Christmas dinner Wolf and I made fast and furious love on the couch. What an appetizer! It's no wonder I developed a crush on the guy, but commonsense told me this was a holiday fling—he lived near the Mojave Desert, after all, and I was teaching in Manhattan—but I got such a high from the experience that my depression vanished! My doctors had tried me on Prozac and Zoloft, but neither had worked. Suddenly I felt attractive again. My life wasn't over. I began calling Wolf "Mr. Prozac." I realized that such an event would never happen to me in Manhattan. It wasn't just the fling, it was the possibility of it. California seemed more than ever a place of recuperation, rejuvenation.

I had always wanted to return to California for good, but after Loma Prieta in '89 I was able to use the quake as an excuse for a whole bunch of other fears. When I got back to Manhattan after my tryst with Wolf, I became angrier and angrier. I was "let go" from my job at John Jay College, suddenly, with no warning. My monthly rent went up to $950 for one room. I woke up one day and thought, "If I stay here, I'll die." I prayed over the decision. It was hard to leave my dear friends. I still miss them, but not the craziness, stress and expense. I had some money in the bank. I moved—no job, no apartment, but three friends still here from twenty years ago.

I persuaded my mother—long distance, in England—that I was doing the right thing and I did do the right thing. Had I stayed in New York I know several things for sure: this book would never have been written, I would never have come out to my family, and I would never have worked to improve my diet and health. Friends warned me that there were no teaching jobs here in San Francisco, that it was almost as costly as Manhattan. But I had always tried to follow my heart. Plus it made sense: the weather is less extreme and the city is much better equipped for someone in a wheelchair, with curb cuts everywhere and accessible free transportation. And so I moved back. I found teaching jobs, albeit part-time. I began writing, making friends, putting down roots. I was not depressed. I was sober. Everything looked good.

~ I love life, my life: people, colors, sounds, the bustle of the city, the beauty of the park, music at the symphony. I will not be deprived of any of it.

Then in 1997 I had a grand mal seizure and a stroke. I broke my right hip, left femur and left ankle as a result, the doctors say, of my thrashing against the framework of my chair. Perhaps luckily (for my psychological health, anyway) neither the doctors nor I were aware of the stroke at first. We were so preoccupied managing the pain and healing the bones that we attributed my slow rehabilitation to the breaks. Only when I was up and about again in my chair did I realize that I was much weaker on my left side, that my memory was worse.

I am battling with depression again, though not the deep dark abyss I had fallen into in 1993. Now I am writing, teaching, making new friends. Where did I get this tenacity? This strength of spirit? I have to give my mother credit. I hear her voice at the back of my head saying, "You'll be alright. Go on, you can do it!"

But it's more than that. I love life, my life: people, colors, sounds, the bustle of the city, the beauty of the park, music at the symphony. I will not be deprived of any of it. When I left the hospital this last time I felt so grateful to be alive, to have all my senses intact—or most of them.

If I had been born in some impossibly impoverished place at the ends of the earth my parents might have killed me at birth. Instead I was treated as "normal." While it is true that my disability was the "elephant in the living room," the inescapable reality that everyone conspired to ignore, better that than being overly pampered. I went to a regular grammar school, a regular university. Being treated as "regular" led, I think, to my coming to demand of life what other regular, smart, middle-class people demand—a good education, a vocation, relationships, sex, friends.

In fact, it has never occurred to me to settle for second best just because I have osteogenesis imperfecta. I have always done what I wanted, at least in adult life—write, teach, live in an intellectually stimulating place. Until I got sober, I felt driven. Now I feel led, perhaps by some kind of higher power which guides my instincts so as to put me in the right place, hence my move back to San Francisco in 1994.

Even when I was drinking my choices weren't all bad ones, though I certainly made them impulsively and didn't plan ahead. This often got me into scrapes financially and emotionally. I have always thought of myself as an optimist, had the feeling everything would turn out all right. There were moments of despair this last time in the hospital, lying there in pain in a body cast. Unable to sleep, with the noise of demented old folks babbling in my ears, there seemed no end to the struggle. I felt as if I would never get out.

~ Where did I get this tenacity?
This strength of spirit?

After my second stroke last year, I became severely depressed again, but this time I knew the signs, knew that it would pass. With the encouragement of my dear friends, most of them other recovering alcoholics, and my psychotherapist, I pulled through. I am still "gun shy." Every flashing light, I fear, announces another seizure or stroke, but hope has returned. I am writing this book. I am about to move into a new apartment. I still love my life.

Never for a moment do I wish I hadn't been born, though I often wish I didn't have O.I., especially when I have a fracture. But therein lies the paradox: Because I am not my bones, not brittle like them, they are dear to me. They are the flowers of my soul. I must care for them as one would a garden. Somehow, my strength comes from them.

My hands, especially, give me pleasure. People say they are beautiful and, indeed, they are delicate, ethereal looking, almost flowerlike, violinist's hands, perhaps. One of them holds this pen. It presses the pen firmly on the paper. It writes on and on, with tenacity.

© Chris Hewitt 1999

 

CHRIS HEWITT's poems and translations have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Advocate, and The James White Review. He has has 'brittle bone disease," osteogenesis imperfecta, and has gotten around in a wheelchair since he was nine.